Of Time and the River
A Spring Poem
An intermediate post about the In Between
The Beethoven Conspiracy
The crows have the runs. They drop an astonishing amount of blackberry-colored crap onto Old Hand’s deck from their perch in the spreaders. Ah, late Summer.
In Admiral Smythe’s Sailor’s Word Book, I see a familiar term: Plot: 1. To plan a chart of a ships course. 2. To plan the action of a story. 3. A conspiracy. All these definitions are relevant to our theme.
I go over logs from past voyages and listen to music in the wheelhouse. I hear, in Beethoven’s dramatic strains, diagonal sheets of sound driven by the cymbal-crash of lightening before they subside into the ominous roiling calm of deep, umber bass tones.
Course plotting is an arcane, hierophanic science mariner’s employ to secure a favorable a passage through the bewildering eddies of chance. Hardheaded pragmatists as well as the most mercurial romantics have long practiced this art in their attempt to weather shoaling capes, negotiate vertiginous maelstroms of myth and meaning or navigate the harrowing straits between literal and figurative truth.
Shorebirds flute over Beethoven’s sibilant stream on bright updraughts of yellow horns. Shades of tympanic gloom rumble on the blood-red horizon. These are the same tortured, lyric phrasings of Conradian darkness; of swelling narratives built up in the long fetch from imaginal, Austral seas. They are stories of death, resurrection and inspired vision.
I turn back to the Canadian current atlas. Let’s see, if I set out from Port Townsend midway through the ebb I should make Cattle Pass by…
“Have ye reckoned for the easterly set of flood beyond Smith Island?”
The voice carries over the anchorage as if down from the dark, oaken halls of time; as if it’s rich baritone had been seasoned by long watches over Arctic wastes. I squint through the wheelhouse windows to see, outlined against the dusky red glare, the shadowy form of a man in a long, black watch-coat and tattered top hat clutching a lee shroud in one hand and a smoldering pipe in the other. He seems a vestige of the age of working sail, as if all the hard-won wisdom gained in man’s endless toil on the sea were pithily encoded in his melancholy aspect and stern admonitions.
“Have ye checked through-hull fittings? Ye don’t want to invite the whole Salish Sea aboard do ye?”
“Well I’ve been busy trying to…”
“Avast ye greenhorn! Jettison all the hackneyed claptrap of useless words and get to the point!”
I resent these rude intrusions upon my peaceful moorings and, in less charitable hours, wonder how McWhirr’s “gaunt form” would look hanging from Old Hand’s yard arm. He would probably make a good scarecrow.
Old Reah’s Bulkhead
After a day spent prepping decks and bowsprit for paint, I sip a local sauvignon blanc in the wheelhouse and view the harbor scene. Old Don Reah is building another rock wall on his steep bank, setting boulders to shore the hillside against rising seas. While I admire his fortitude, I’d think he would take a break after nearly 90 years labor on life’s rock pile.
Old Hand lies becalmed while flotsam and weed drift slowly past the bow. I submit to the pull and creak of time and hear the low moan of the hawsers pulling against the weathered dock. Sometimes the almost human sounds start me from revery. It’s seems as if they were made by the phantom pioneers who lie buried in Kane Cemetary near the harbor entrance.
The thought of old age, sickness and death recalls me to particulars—the cerulean sky opens between massed cumulonimbus over Port Madison where fledgling osprey arc in widening circles ever farther from their nests. Each year there’s a whole new crop of them, crying loud in their voracious flight in search of fleeting fingerling.
I am reading the biography of Thomas Wolfe. I love the extravagant, melodic rants of this failed playwright who, battling editors, critics and the philistine aesthetes of the the 20’s, went on to write one the great novels of the 20th Century: Look Homeward Angel. It is sad he died before he could haul his semi-fictional cast of Gants, Joyner’s or Webbers across the continent to the seaside town of Port Townsend as he planed. He caught pneumonia while crossing the very same Strait of Juan de Fuca Old Hand will navigate early next month.
But mostly, Thomas Wolfe’s work inspires me to write–to dare imagine that, after 63 years traipsing this wide, sad earth, I may actually have something to say.
Some, it seems, are born to write, to perpetrate effusive, yet judiciously restrained prose upon the citizenry of this steamship earth– writing which plumbs the deepest mysteries and gets at the heart of unshakable truth. But I have no pretensions to profundity and aspire only to create sea stories which might weather the deluge of time and stand as true as Reah’s solid bulkhead.
Voyage on the Salish Sea
The 30 mile passage from Port Madison to Port Townsend is marked by the doleful names of voyages that came to grief on the Salish Sea. It is the saga of sunken tin-pot steamers who plied the vertiginous depths of Admiralty Inlet and now lie some fathoms deep among the fouled chain of time and memory. The place names along the first leg of Old Hand’s forth-coming voyage to the San Juan Islands bear testament to historic, tortured founderings: Point no Point, Skunk Bay and Foulweather Bluff.
Perhaps the names are meant as caution to jaded yatchies who, besotted by the mirror calm of the convergence zone and assured by their virtual, abstract trajectories, sail blithely on over the sun-dappled main while toasting a lowering Margarita sky. What are these names but vague appellations foor that stubborn tyranny of tide and rock that mark this bewitchingly placid and, by turns, malevolent stretch of sea? And what are all our errant eastings, leewardings and embarkations but the the soul’s recurrent flight into the dream time–the Homeric drive by which all voyages are undertaken–and part of the eternal, unquenchable drive toward the further, mythic shore.
My plan is to sail with the new September moon toward a not-too-adventurous landfall in the San Juan Islands and there to blithely hang amid the encantadas of the north; to seek, to groove, to go where no green lubber has gone before, that my soul might find solace, inspiration and release.
Who knows? Maybe even that old Miphisto of the sea, that horn-fisted coot with the line-squall scowl might loom again in the night, his gaunt profile etched against the thundering flash of doomsday. For none but Saturnius McWhirr can skipper Old Hand proper. None but he can set the serpentine track of this labored narrative on a course that is steady and true.